Correspondence with Alessandro Zaccuri

In April 2011, Howard Gardner published Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for Virtues in the Twenty First Century. The book received positive reviews, the fullest one by Alan Ryan in the New York Review of Books. A paperback version of the book, with a new preface, and a new subtitle, “Educating for the Virtues in the Era of Truthiness and Twitter” is being published in the fall of 2012.

In addition to reviews, Gardner has received provocative letters from colleagues. From time to time we will post these exchanges:

Alessandro Zaccuri is an Italian journalist and essayist. He has written for such publications as “Millelibri” and “Future”, as well as hosted the television show “The Big Talk”. 


Q: “Convergence” is a big issue in your book: Medieval virtues were convergent (verum et pulchrum et bonum convertuntur, said Thomas Aquinas), digital media are convergent and “Convergent Truths”  may substitute Absolute Truth. Convergence is a starting point or the final destination of virtues in our post-postmodernist world? 

A: I am glad that you asked this question because it gives me the chance to clarify what I meant. I do NOT belieive that there will be a convergence between truth, beauty, and goodness. They are separate and will remain so forever

What I meant to say is that it is possible, today, to get closer to the truth than ever before– in our phrase “to converge on what is really true.”  That is because all the claims and evidence are out there for all to see. However, it takes time and effort to separate out what is serious and has evidence, from rumor and falsehood. 

I also used the word ‘convergence’ as a contrast to beauty, which is ‘divergent’. That is, everyone can form his or her own view of what is beautiful and that is great.  No need anymore for an Approved Canon– though the beauties of Michelangelo and Raphael,  of Shakespeare and Mozart, will continue to be valued….but we can add many new names as well.

Q: Traditional virtues cannot be the way we used to known, but we cannot go without  them. It is rather easy to understand about truth and goodness, but the idea that beauty is so important for a good and true society may be surprising: why do you stress it so much?

A: I agree that society needs truth and goodness more than it needs beauty. Strictly speaking, we could somehow survive without the experience of beauty. But most people today, certainly in developed countries, have enough food to eat, a roof over their head, and a measure of security. So why go on living? What gives life meaning for most of us are beautiful experiences — with nature, with art, with our family, eating a meal or going on an exciting trip. A life without beautiful experiences would be empty indeed — this may be part of the point of the plays of Samuel Beckett.

Q: You use the word fundamentalism for any closed-minded opinion and you are critical about the demolition of religion we can find in authors such as Dawkins, etc. From your point of view, which is the relationship between religion and virtues today?

A: In my book I did not say much about religion. That decision was deliberate,  it would take a whole book to explore the relationship between religion, on the one hand, and the virtues on the other. And that book has already been written by many people, including the author(s) of the Bible! And Dante’s Divine Comedy! But since you asked the question, I can say this. To determine truth we need to know the methods used to state and ascertain the truth. I don’t believe in truth ex cathedra, or truth based on religious faith. In that sense, there is a gulf between religion, on the one hand, and truth, on the other.

Religions have certainly spawned many beautiful works of art — and many people find religious experiences to be beautiful, that is fine with me.  But you certainly don’t need religion to have experiences of beauty. I am quite secular and yet, as I have suggested above,  beauty in art and nature are among the most important things in my life.

Religion has been responsible for most of our sense of what is good, but all sorts of bad things have happened in the name of religion. I think that most people need religion but that is changing and will continue to change. In the US there is no relation, or a negative relation, between degree of religiosity and the incidence of moral acts.

Q: Young people live in a society that is in quick and continuously transforming – they are not better nor worse than we used to be, they simply are different and we need to trust them in their exploration of a brand new context. Is it a good synthesis of you education project?

A: This is a reasonable synthesis. I would add, paraphrasing the US Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, “people have always been unethical but there have never been so many ways to be unethical.”  Indeed, in the digital world, we have to reinvent what it means to have privacy, own intellectual property, be trustworthy, and participate in a community. These are big challenges and no one has figured out yet how to meet them. 

Q: Responsibility, you write, is the best basis for ethics. Is it also the only possible basis in a multicultural world? 

A: This is the biggest challenge of all. Countries, and even groups within countries, have different senses of what it means to be responsible — responsible as worker (professional) and responsibiility as a citizen.  The best way to deal with this reality is for each party to put forth its reasons and then to discuss and debate until the optimal solution is reached. I call this ‘the creation of a commons’ – a common space where people speak truthfully about the problems and paradoxes that they face, and how they deal with them, what mistakes they have made, and how to rectify them, using testimony from others.

One big question is whether such common spaces can be established in cyberspace — or whether they require face-to-face meetings. We see, with reference to the European Union or the United Nations, how difficult it is to mediate among different senses of responsibility. But I see no alternative. And in a few areas — science,  medicine, air trafffic controls — we have made real progress in the past century!

Q: Your analysis of the current economical crisis has been quite enlightening for me. How can stop that which is complex from becoming incomprehensible? How can the media (and journalism itself) help?

A: I agree with Warren Buffett — if a financial transaction is too complicated for even the experts to understand and to explain, it should not be permitted. In other words, we should not allow our social and economic arrangements to become so complicated that they defy comprehensibility. I think that the media and journalism are ESSENTIAL here. If journalists had asked economists and the heads of hedge funds to explain in plain language what they were doing, what were the risks, and who would PAY if things went wrong, and the financial people could not give a credible explanation and accept the consequences, they should not have been allowed to proceed. Instead of “‘too big to fail” I suggest “too difficult to understand” means “Not Permitted.”

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